God Makes Men in the Desert
I enjoy being reminded of the ordinariness of great men. Maybe you do too. Most of the time, we feel very ordinary, if not subpar, and there can be encouragement in discovering how normal some seemingly extraordinary people can be. There is a glory in the ordinary, and we’re often helped by sermons and videos and articles that point that out.
But that is not the point of Exodus 2. The chapter depicts a life, from the beginning, that was set apart to serve in an extraordinary role in an extraordinary time in the life of God’s people. Don’t try to spin Moses as ordinary. Of course, he was human, and ordinary in that sense. But from birth, his life was unusual, by God’s design.
Moses is simply one of the greatest men in the history of world. He was not only bilingual, and bicultural (born and weened Jewish and raised Egyptian), but he was the singular human leader of God’s chosen people during the most important events in their history, prior to the coming of Christ. Something of the extraordinariness of Moses, and the esteem in which the people held him, is captured in Numbers:
“Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth." (Numbers 3:12)
Not only was he great, but he was humble — in fact, the most humble! — which only makes him all the more great.
Moses’ Three Exoduses
Today, as we turn to Exodus chapter 2, we focus on Moses’s life, from birth until his full (80-year) preparation for the task God had for him. Chapter 2 covers two-thirds of his life. Moses was an old man (80 years old), not a young man, when God called him to lead his people out of slavery. But Exodus 2 tells us about Moses’s birth and then the key events that occurred at midlife, when he was a young man, and put him on a trajectory to be (or not) the kind of old man God would use for his purposes. However extraordinary Moses was, this pattern is actually very normal, and as a church full of young men, and women, we will find some lessons and perspective and hope to gain from looking at Moses’s life (as will older adults).
One interesting aspect of Moses’s life is that it breaks into clean 40-year thirds (according to Acts 7:23, 30). He was forty when he fled from Egypt. Then he was in the wilderness, in Midian, for forty years, until age 80 when he led the people out of Egypt. And he died 40 years later at 120.
This is not the only place in the Bible that looks at the span of human life in thirds. This part is not unusual about Moses. The apostle John, in 1 John 2:12–14, twice addresses three age-groups in the church: children, young men, and fathers. And since both the Old Testament and Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 draw attention to these clean, 40-year thirds of Moses’s life, that will be our framework of approach to Exodus 2 this morning. And besides, in this chapter itself, we have clean thirds, each marked by a kind of exodus (or as Moses’s name means, a drawing out): first he was drawn out from water at birth, then he was drawn out from Egypt to the Midian wilderness as a young man, and finally he became God’s instrument, as an old man or “father,” in drawing out God’s people from Egypt.
So, let’s look at the three exoduses of the extraordinary life of Moses, and see what God was doing in each stage (in quite an ordinary way) in making Moses a “father” to lead his people.
1) God protects the child, through faithful women.
As we saw last week in chapter 1, Pharaoh was threatened by the Israelites’ growing size and strength. First he tries to deal craftily with them (Genesis 3:1), like the serpent, by setting taskmasters over them. Then he ruthlessly oppresses them as slaves. Then he aims, like the dragon, to devour, first in secret, through the midwives, then shamelessly in public with a command to all the people, which is the final verse of chapter 1 and sets the scene for chapter 2: “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live” (Exodus 1:22).
Last week we saw how in and through Pharaoh, Satan is seeking to devour the coming son God has promised. When God cursed the serpent in Genesis 3, he said:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he [a son] shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
Satan is terrified of this “offspring” of the woman who is coming. And the story of the Old Testament is the great mystery of how and when God will give this serpent-crushing son, and Satan’s irrational and cold-blooded efforts to try to stop it.
So God’s people are looking for a coming son, and so is Satan. But in the wisdom of God, the very thing Pharaoh overlooks, God makes an avenue of his salvation. “Let every daughter live,” he says, and in chapter 2, it is the daughters who save the son.
Daughters to the Rescue
First, it’s Moses’s mother, a daughter of Levi (verse 1). She hides the baby for three months (verse 2), but when she can safely do so no longer, she takes a basket (verse 3) — which is the same word for “ark” in Genesis 6–9, and this is the only other place it appears. And just like Noah’s ark she daubed it with pitch (Genesis 6:14). She put her son in it, and then, trusting in God, and learning from his ways, she obeys Pharaoh, and puts her son in the river, “among the reeds by the river bank” (verse 3). She put him in the river!
Then it’s Moses’s sister, the daughter of his mother. She stands by watching, to see what will come of the ark that carries her brother (verse 4). And when the ark is found, she steps forward and shrewdly suggests a course of action (verse 7). Then, this irony: Moses’s mother is paid by Pharaoh’s house to raise him!
Then it’s Pharaoh’s daughter — his own daughter! She, of all people, sees the ark (verse 6), and when she opens it, she has pity on the child, knowing “This is one of the Hebrews’ children” (verse 7). Her father has commanded every Hebrew son be cast into the river, as this one has. But now she will draw him out. She will rescue him, from the river. So she names him Moses, based on the verb “to draw out (of water),” saying, “I drew him out of the water” (verse 10). The irony: not only does she draw him out, but he will draw out the Hebrews from Egypt.
So it’s the daughters who save the son. Levi’s daughter, and her daughter, and even Pharaoh’s own daughter. And we’ll see in two weeks, how Jethro’s daughter comes to Moses’s rescue in another near-death experience.
So God protects the son through his daughters. He preserves the child through faithful women. In this first season of life, Moses, great as he will be, does not fend for himself. Before he becomes a protector and deliverer of others, Moses first is protected and delivered by others: his mother, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter. As an infant, he does nothing; others act. He gets no credit.
As adults, both men and women, this is relevant to the role God calls us to play in the lives of our infants and children, to protect them and preserve their lives, even long before they can remember, and provide for their upbringing. Children are not convenient, and aren’t supposed to be.
But in particular, there is a word of encouragement here for mothers and daughters. Sisters in Christ, don’t discount the role you have to fill in the protecting and raising of sons and daughters. Without the daughters, there would be no Moses.
You might wonder, Where is Moses’s father in this chapter? So far as we know, he wasn’t absentee. He wasn’t delinquent. He was a slave in Egypt like every other man, getting up early, working hard, going to sleep late. And what was his stay-at-home wife doing while he went off to work? She was going the most important work in the world. She was liberating the nation from slavery by protecting and raising the son through whom God would deliver his people. Sisters in Christ, don’t let the serpent fool you into thinking you’d doing the really important work if you were out in the fields with Moses’s father. The heroes of these early chapters of Exodus are daughters. Not daughters trying to act like sons, but daughters being daughters in their glorious God-given calling.
2) God prepares the man, through testing.
Now, in this second 40-year season, Moses shows an instinct to take action to protect and deliver others, but it is not yet God’s timing (verses 11–15). Because God put it in his heart doesn’t yet mean it’s time to do that work — there is a delay between the beginning of the internal call and confirmation in the external call. This is typical, that there be a season of preparation, however long, between the two. God has a Midian for Moses, a wilderness to test him — to prepare him for his life’s work to come. There, in Midian, God’s hand remains on Moses, and he continues to act for others (verses 16–22). We have two scenes here at Moses’s midlife in verses 11–22.
First is his second exodus in verses 11–15. His first exodus was Pharaoh’s daughter drawing him out from the water of the Nile. Now his second exodus: he leaves Egypt with the Pharaoh ready to kill him.
When Moses comes of age, he has given him a heart for “his people,” the Hebrews — twice verse 11 says “his people.” So Moses “went out” from the comforts of the palace and “looked on” the Hebrews’ burdens. He “went out” to help others. Just as Pharaoh’s daughter “took pity” on him, so now he takes pity on his people.
It would be easy to skip to a “do not murder” lesson right here for the kids, and for us all. See, Moses took things into his own hands, and now God’s going to delay delivering the people for another forty years. But I’m not sure things are quite that simple. It may be the case that Moses is putting himself forward here, acting in his own strength, while God means to first humble him, and then put Moses forward in God’s own timing. There is something to that. But before we’re too hard on Moses, it’s important to know what the inspired New Testament writers say about this event. In Acts 7, Stephen says of Moses:
When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. 24 And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. (Acts 7:23–25)
Hebrews 11, the Faith Hall of Fame, also speaks to this chapter:
By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24–26)
Before we simply dump on Moses, we should realize something profoundly good was going on in him as a young man. “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22), yet he found it lacking, and rejected “the fleeting pleasures of sin” and chose to be “mistreated with the people of God” (Hebrews 11:24–25). And “he defended the oppressed man” (Acts 7:24). In doing so, he chose, over all Egypt had to offer, the greater reward of God’s promises to his people, which would culminate in Christ (Hebrews 11:26).
There may be some sense in verse 12 that Moses goes out in his own initiative, not in response to God’s. Maybe the question of verse 14 was a zinger that convicted him: “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?” Answer: no one. God put something in his heart, but he has not yet objectively, plainly called Moses. But in forty years, the answer to the question would be God. God would make him ruler and judge over the nation. In Genesis 37, Joseph’s brothers asked him a similar question, and to similar effect: “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” (Genesis 37:8). The answer was not Joseph’s to give but God’s. And the timing was not Joseph’s to grasp, or Moses’s, but God’s to give. God has thirteen years of preparation for Joseph in Egyptian slavery. And God had forty years of preparation for Moses in Midian. God would call Moses, and make it plain, in God’s perfect timing. God would be the one who would have the glory of taking the initiative. But first, God had wilderness work, preparation work, still to do for Moses before using him to draw out his people. God had a mid-life test for him called Midian. That’s the second scene in verses 16–22.
Meet Me in the Midian
At the end of verse 15, we hear Moses “sat down by a well.” So, what’s coming now? We might know what to expect from Genesis. In Genesis 24, Abraham’s servant met Rebecca, Isaac’s wife to be, at a well. And in Genesis 29, Jacob met his wife Rachel at a well. And here Moses encounters the seven daughters of the priest of Midian at a well. Moses has escaped Pharaoh, but not God’s favor. God has not abandoned him. And he will provide for him not only water and bread, as he will do later for Israel in the wilderness, but also a wife in this second season as a young man in need of preparation. And few things help a young man grow up like having a wife.
What ingratiates Moses to Jethro, the priest of Midian, is that Moses stands up for his daughters, against some hostile shepherds. Verse 17: “The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock.” Just as he left the comforts of Pharaoh’s house and stood up for his people in Egypt, and sought to save them, so now Moses continues to grow and mature as one who will put himself at risk to act on behalf of others — the deliverer at heart is becoming one in fact. This is maturity.
In this second 40-year season, as a young man, Moses is sowing seeds he will reap later. Here, on a small scale, Moses begins to get his feet under him in coming to the aid of others. This is not yet the great deliverance. That will come later. There is more sowing to be done — 40 years of it. God is forming and shaping him with the “tests” of young adulthood, as he still does for us today, which are not just tests to see what’s in us but to develop us. God’s tests for us, as for Moses, are not mere inspections but catalysts, as James 1:2–3 says, “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Testing produces. Testing matures. Moses is learning to “go out” from comfort and “look at” the needs of others, and take self-sacrificial action to help. Which is how we want to be as Christians. This is what God is growing young adults into, to be like Moses at the well, ready to help those in need.
3) God performs his climactic work through the father.
Now, at last, verses 23–25, lead us into the final 40-year season of Moses’s life, and to his life’s work: “drawing out” God’s people from Egypt and leading them in their 40-year wilderness, which unfolds in the rest of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Then Moses will reap what he sowed as a young man in the wilderness. Next Sunday we’ll see his external call in Exodus 3.
And, in the final third of his life, when Moses was most prepared to act on others’ behalf, he didn’t settle for end-of-life comforts but he answered God’s scary, inconvenient call. Moses’s life-work came not as a young man (with energy) — that’s when God was preparing him — but as an old man (with maturity). As a “father.” That’s when he was ready.
Which may be as counter-cultural today as it’s ever been. The world has a different pattern and tries put in us different expectations. Light the world on fire when you’re young; then slow down and check out when you’re old. Modern celebrities, especially athletes, are in their prime in their 20s and early 30s — because their celebrity is so based on their bodies, not their spiritual maturity. But when God makes a man, he forms his soul. He shapes his heart. He sows seeds of character, perhaps for decades in young men, to reap a harvest in their later years. Don’t buy into the world’s paradigm of “peaking” in your twenties. In God’s eyes, young adulthood is for spiritual preparation, and for raising children, and sowing seeds for future harvest (“peaking”) in older adulthood. Let’s close with verses 23–25:
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 God saw the people of Israel—and God knew. (Exodus 2:23-25)
Note two things as we close: the trigger and the timing.
What is it, after 80 years, that rouses God? It is the cries of his people. The suffering he permits produces the groaning that cries out to him. The turning point, humanly speaking, is God’s people praying. Through prayer, we play a real part God’s deliverances. The chapter ends with simply “God knew.” God knew what? Next week we’ll see in Genesis 3:7: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings.” In verse 11, Moses “looked on” the people’s burdens, and now God does. “God saw the people of Israel — and God knew.” He heard their cries. Prayer triggered God’s response. Take encouragement to cry out to him. Pray. How many of our Father’s deliverances are simply awaiting our asking?
And don’t miss God’s amazing patience and otherworldly sense of timing on display here. Verse 23 says “many days.” How “many days” was Moses in Midian? For forty years (Acts 7:23). And now, here we are, 80 years after Moses’s birth, sitting on the cusp of God’s call. He took 80 years to prepare Moses the man for this work — and we would be wise to be slow to judge how immediately God expresses his favor and shows his hand for deliverance.
Verse 24 says, “God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” What does that mean, that he “remembered his covenant”? Had he forgotten it? No. To “remember” related to a covenant means to take action, at the proper time, to fulfill the terms of the covenant. To “remember the covenant” is the positive way of saying not to break the covenant (Jeremiah 14:21). And now the proper time has come. Four hundred years have passed, as he said, since God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 15:13), and he has been waiting, according to Genesis 15:16, for Amorite iniquity to be complete, to bring his people into the promised land.
Now the time comes, and God “remembers his covenant.” He acts to perform what he had promised. And part of that promise, in Genesis 15:14, is this: “I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” Which will play out in the coming chapters of Exodus.
More Glory Than Moses
As we come to the Table, we could point out the similar threefold pattern in Jesus’s life. God protected him from the dragon-king (Herod), who sought to devour the male children, at his birth. So also, God prepared Jesus through testing in the wilderness. And then God performed his climactic work through Jesus in his final days as he gave himself, to the point of death, to deliver his people.
But let’s end with Hebrews 3. Moses, extraordinary as he was, was only a servant in God’s house. But Jesus, says Hebrews 3:3, “has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses — as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself.” Moses was a servant; Christ is the Son. And he invites us to his Table.